Amagasaki Hails New Era of ‘People Power’

By Brian Covert
Staff Writer

AMAGASAKI, Hyogo — As Lower House election campaigns rage nationwide, grassroots winners here are holding up their own “people power” victory as the shape of things to come.

Hajime Sakai, a Hankyu Railways maintenance worker and one of four successful independent candidates of the Shimin-ha (People’s Faction) party, admits that past voter apathy in Japan had him viewing victory as a long shot.

But after being elected to office June 27, Sakai says he and the others fully intend to clean up — and open up — a city assembly rocked by a pre-election financial scandal that crossed party lines, culminating in the dissolution of the assembly amid deep public distrust.

“I believed in the good common sense of the people of Amagasaki and in their eagerness for democracy,” said the 42-year-old Sakai, head of the Shimin-ha. “I’m delighted that the election results proved me right in my beliefs.”

Joining Sakai in a first taste of political power will be fellow Shimin-ha candidates Atsuko Kitagawa, 38, and Maki Maruo, 28, both grocery store owners, as well as Nobuko Uchida, 45, a patent office typist.

The Shimin-ha candidates were among the 22 independents — defectors from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party included — who were elected to the 52-seat assembly. Although candidates from all the major political parties ran in the hotly contested race, not one from the LDP won a seat.

Sakai attributes the outcome to the fed-up feeling among voters about widespread corruption and immorality seemingly at all levels of government.

Under Sakai’s three-point “vision” for change in the Amagasaki assembly, citizens would be encouraged to examine all activities of their elected officials more closely, all government-related information would be opened to the public, and citizens would be allowed to directly participate in the assembly’s decisions.

Borrowing from municipal practices in the U.S. city of Berkeley, California, Sakai, says he will push for the citizens themselves to decide local issues through mechanisms such as public referendums.

“The Japanese people received a system of democracy from the Untied States, but up to now we haven’t been able to consume real democracy for ourselves,” he says. “This is our time.”

To avoid the mistakes of the recent past, the activists say they will push for tighter restrictions regarding conflict-of-interest cases among assembly members, as well as complete accountability among any members who are involved in wrongdoing.

Sakai says he would also like to do away with the local version of the “kisha club” system of press clubs in Japan that he views as hampering, not helping, the lines of direct communication between the citizens and the government.

Lofty ideas among bright-eyed idealists? Sakai and his cohorts prefer to be thought of as “pioneers” — forerunners of a new wave of “people power” that could influence similar actions in assemblies throughout Japan at a time when major political changes are taking place at the national level.

But the Shimin-ha party members may have to deal with some formidable obstacles along the way: Also elected to the city assembly were 17 former representatives who had earlier resigned due to a scandal over padded expense accounts.

It was Sakai and the other grassroots coalition allies who started the protest that snowballed into the assembly’s breakup. But Sakai dismisses any chance of corruption creeping back into the assembly, especially now with public watchdogs like him possessing seats for the next four years.

“The system will — and must — be changed,” he said.

In the meantime, Sakai, a father of two and grassroots activist for the last 20 years, sees his election as a chance of a lifetime and invites skeptics to take note of the new role of “people power” in his city.

“This is a historic moment,” he says, “for the people not only here but all over Japan as a first step toward getting real democracy. Just watch and see what happens in Amagasaki.”